Alex Vesia – The Miami Marlins Best Bullpen Piece?

Photo Credit: Jordan McPherson, Miami Herald
Manager Don Mattingly looks on as Alex Vesia delivers a pitch during an early spring bullpen session.

by Michael P Theed

The 2020 Miami Marlins are coming in with a bit of a different look than the 2019 team. One of the areas that will be most noticeably contrasting from the team of last year is the bullpen, which was the worst in all of Major League Baseball (the only bullpen to have a negative Fangraphs WAR, sitting at a rather unpleasant -2.2). That bullpen also produced the third worst walk rate in the league, with their 4.37 BB/9 trailing only the Pittsburgh Pirates (also 4.37 but in more innings) and Boston Red Sox (4.38), as well as an abysmal ground ball rate at only 37.3% as a whole.

With that in mind, the team’s thought process for 2020 is pretty simple: get pitchers that throw strikes more consistently. This has been mostly done not so much by adding relievers, but subtracting the largest offenders of the walk rate crisis. Out with Tayron Guerrero (career 5.69 BB/9), Tyler Kinley (6.56), and Jose Quijada, along with the likes of Jarlin Garcia (more here on why this was a good move) and Austin Brice. In steps Brandon Kintzler (read more about this signing here, career BB/9 of 2.33 and also ground ball rate of 56.1%) and Yimi Garcia (1.69 BB/9). Rule 5 pick Sterling Sharp may see most of his action in the bullpen in 2020, and has usually seen his walk rates around the 2.50 area.

However, one name not listed above may be the best reliever of them all for the Miami Marlins, and he has yet to throw a pitch with the big league club. This is, of course, the Marlins 2018 17th round pick (507th overall), 23 year old left handed pitcher Alex Vesia.

Being drafted in the 17th round as Vesia was, very few will pay attention. This is appropriate, as out of all 600 17th round picks since 2000 (of which 449 signed with their drafting team that year), only 40 of them ever made it to the Major Leagues for even a short period of time, a total of 8.9%, and only a handful of them have been worth more than slightly above a replacement player.

Therefore, why should a 17th round pick excite Miami Marlins fans? Let’s loop back to the team wanting to employ pitchers that throw strikes at more consistent rates. Kintzler and (Yimi) Garcia put up some strong walk rates as previously mentioned, but how does a BB/9 of 0.79 sound? This is exactly what Alex Vesia posted in his final 45.1 innings last year when combining A+, AA, and Arizona Fall League numbers. Four walks in 45 and a third innings. In his first taste of pro ball after being drafted, he had a 1.9 BB/9 over 33.1 innings.

Alright, that’s good there, he throws a lot of strikes. Does he do so effectively? More specifically, can he get the ball by batters consistently? That answer is also, yes. In 77 total innings in 2019 (now including A-ball), Vesia struck out 38.8% of batters that he faced.

One may ask, how about run suppression? Quality of contact? Where are batters hitting the ball against the young southpaw? Furthermore, how effective is he going beyond one inning of work? These are all great questions.

Let’s begin with quality of contact. Vesia’s xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) improved at each level that he climbed in the 2019 season, with a very good 2.68 in A-ball with the Clinton Lumberkings, an incredible 1.72 with A+ Jupiter Hammerheads, and an even more remarkable 1.64 with the AA Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (unfortunately do not have data for the AFL).

To continue, batters have had a generally tough time pulling the ball against Vesia, with batters going to the opposite field against him over 40% of the time at each level in 2019 (including a staggering 55.2% in AA). For the most part, a batter’s power is to their pull side, and Vesia is making them push the ball. This may be a big reason why his H/9 sits at a rather healthy 6.8, along with what is mentioned next.

Vesia is interesting in his batted ball splits. He does allow a pretty good amount of fly balls (usually mid to upper 40% range), but he does also get a lot of contact on the ground (over 40% in both A+ and AA, which is solid). Vesia makes this happen with a good fastball and an even better change-up while sprinkling in a solid curveball. From Fangraph’s write-up on the Miami Marlins top prospects by Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel, Vesia’s fastball sits in the low 90’s with a flat angle, signifying a pretty high spin rate while mixing that in with an odd delivery.

In line with run suppression, Vesia has given up just four home runs in 110.1 professional innings (this is a HR/9 of just 0.33), so despite allowing many fly balls, they don’t seem to go far. In fact, a good number of them don’t even leave the infield. Vesia had 24.1%, 26.7%, and 21.4% infield fly ball rates at his respective levels in 2019, which, if all three of those were translated to the Major Leagues last year, would be … are you ready for this? … first, second, and third among all relievers. These have combined to give Vesia an ERA of 1.47 in his professional career to this point.

As for the ability to pitch beyond three outs, this perhaps the most important thing with Vesia. A starting pitcher in college, he has gotten more than three outs in 38 of his 52 professional games. That is 73.1% of the games that he’s entered. With the three batter minimum in place and the general high rate of bullpen usage in recent years, having a reliever who can throw multiple effective innings to batters on both sides of the plate is a godsend.

There is a chance that Vesia breaks camp with the Miami Marlins and is part of the Opening Day roster for the 2020 team. With rosters now expanded to 26, this opens up a spot for an extra player. The Marlins usually had 13 relievers in 2019, so that won’t change. However, with many of the arms shipped out and not all of them being replaced, a couple doors are left open in what should be a much stronger bullpen, and Alex Vesia, despite not yet having any big league experience, may be leading the charge.

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